The act just isn’t cute anymore. In truth, it hasn’t been for at least a couple of decades. So why is it that Woody Allen continues to insist on playing “Woody Allen?” Most of us know by now that Allen in real life isn’t a manically neurotic bumbler and doesn’t actually have a stammer, so why does he insist on trotting out that old persona film after film? Why not try something new — some real acting — or, if he doesn’t feel up to that challenge, why not just stay offscreen, as he has in most of his best films of recent years? For whatever reason, he’s back in Scoop, and my patience is worse for the wear. The movie starts off with a fun premise — a recently deceased journalist (Ian McShane, from “Deadwood”) gets a great tip while on the ferry to the afterlife, and he’s such a dogged reporter that he can’t resist slipping away to the land of the living to pass it on — and then weights it with dated Borscht-Belt humor that’s even more tired than Allen’s performance.
Thankfully, Allen is now on the sexual sidelines, though that doesn’t stop him from including an intergenerational romance, with 37-year-old Hugh Jackman wooing 21-year-old Scarlett Johansson. Jackman plays Peter Lyman, a British aristocrat who may also be a serial killer. He’s quite dashing in his Savile Row suits, but his straight-man act never syncs up with Allen and Johansson’s over-the-top shtick. She’s once again a poor American wheedling invitations to country estates, as in Allen’s last film, Match Point, but this role is a far cry from the femme fatale she played there. Dressed mostly in unflattering clothes and giving a performance only slightly less obnoxious than Allen’s, she plays Sondra Pransky, the dithery Diane Keaton role, earnest and guileless as a kitten. Sondra says her heroes are Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell (standard reference points for any dopey college student in 2006, right?), but those dames would wipe the floor with a weak sister like her.
Allen plays Sid Waterman, a.k.a. “The Great Splendini,” a bargain-basement magician with awful, ridiculous stage patter and a bag full of lame magic-store tricks that his audiences inexplicably love. After the dead reporter appears to Sondra during Sid’s act, he becomes entangled in her investigation for no particular reason other than that Allen wrote the script. His attempts to keep his character involved in the action feel forced, though that may be partly due to Alisa Lepselter’s dozy, rhythmless editing, which makes every scene feel vaguely off. Certainly the half-assed script doesn’t help; the only genuinely funny lines in the movie are the nasty insults Sondra and Sid lob at each other.
The great thing about Match Point was that it didn’t feel like a typical Woody Allen film; it seemed like he was pushing himself to try something different. Allen is confirming many fans’ worst fears here, proving that it was a false start — a move in the right direction that he has inexplicably abandoned to return to his weakest material. It’s as if he felt so uncomfortable with the experimentation that he decided to make another Woody Allen/New York Comedy in London. There’s another possibility, though, one so far-fetched that I hesitate to even mention it. Eh, I’ll go ahead. Consider this: Could Allen’s character be a metaphor for what he’s doing with Scoop — is he deliberately playing Archie Rice, mocking the expectations of fans who have been telling him for 25 years that they just want him to be funny again? It’s impossible for me to say, but when one of the great comic minds of our time makes a new movie that feels less fresh than the ones he made 30 or 35 years ago, I almost want to believe that it’s intentional.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Scoop / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | August 3, 2006 | Comments ()